Summer Music Series: Mango Groove Band Leader Crafts Steel Drums in Conway

Jul 27, 2018

The Summer Music Series swings through the Mount Washington Valley this week to visit the only music shop in New Hampshire that builds steel drums, the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.

After a listener wrote us about it, NHPR’s Leila Goldstein visited the shop, Maccabee Panworks, in Conway.


(This transcript below was lightly edited.)

Eric Rollnick began playing drums when he was 8. Twenty years later, he was bitten by the "Pan Jumbie," and he remains enthralled by steel drums traditional to Trinidad and Tobago.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

Eric Rollnick leads me to a room filled with tools for making and fixing steel drums.

"This is the kind of hammers I use to sync the drums, right. So these hook up to an air compressor. I just had the boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom, you know, hit it all the way down."

Rollnick have been playing the instrument since he heard a steel band play at a festival in the 80s. But a steel drum that sounds just right can be hard to find in the U.S. So he found a book on how to build them. How to take 55 gallon barrels and turn them into instruments.

"I was building these drums and they weren't sounding like I wanted them to sound, so my wife Janet said, 'Well, we should go to Trinidad, where they came from--they originated there--and check them out.'"

Now he has a full steel drum workshop in his music store in Conway. Shelves filled with boxes of musical instruments wrap around the high-ceilinged shop, and posters of Trinidad and Tobago cover the walls.

"Here's a Trinidadian twenty dollar bill and you can see on the back is a set of steel drums."

There are other builders and even larger manufacturers in the U.S. But Rollnick is the only one he knows of in New Hampshire. Today his bandmates are here to practice some of his arrangements. The notes come from dents hammered into the surface of the metal to make different pitches. 

Candace Maher performs a number during a Mango Groove practice.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

Here's Candace Maher on the second pan.

Janet Kucera, Eric's wife, on the guitar pan.

Cathy Arsenault-Shea on the bass steel pan.

Bill Mead on a full drum set, what steel bands called the engine room.

And Rollnick on the lead pan.

The Mango Groove has been together, with a few changes in members, for the past 15 years. They start with an original tune by Rollnick. At first, Rollnick only wanted to play Trinidadian music like Calypso and Soca, but he realized audiences in New England responded more to songs they were familiar with.

Now the group also plays reggae, jazz, and pop songs. Next up is "My Girl," by The Temptations.

The Mango Groove's Bill Mead on the drums.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

The members of the Mango Groove are all white. Some Trinidadian pannists see the instrument spread around the globe as an extension of colonialism, a form of cultural appropriation when a dominant culture adopts parts of a minority culture.

Rollnick says he's thought about that.

"Cultural appropriation ... do only Italians play violins? Do only Germans play trumpets? How many bands play blues? There are lots of white blues players. I mean, it's one of those things -- once it's out in the world it's there."

Rollnick says part of what keeps him going is teaching people about the history of these instruments and the culture of Trinidad and Tobago, a place he feels so close to. The band plays festivals and concerts and Rollnick teaches at schools and leads a community band. And even though moving their gear is a three-car operation, Rollnick says it's something he has to do.

"They call it the 'Pan Jumbie,' which is a thing from Trinidad, the Jumbie is ... it's like a virus. Once you get involved in this it takes over your life." 

It's the love and commitment to the music. The energy of the sounds you can make with a steel drum, that he's trying to pass on. 

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Watch Peter Biello's video of Mango Groove's recent rehearsal: